SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
February 08, 1982
From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway
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February 08, 1982

Passage To The Past

From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway

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Farther along in the park is a family of spotted serval cats, aloof and suspicious, intermixed with large tortoises from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles. "The servals have been breeding like mad," Armitage says, "but we can't get to the kittens quickly enough. The male eats them." The servals are fed with culls from a chicken farm, also on the cement factory property. Nearby is a pond full of crocodiles, somnolent and vacant-eyed in the heat.

"A very valuable product, the old croc," Armitage explains. "We feed them with tilapia guts from our fish farm, which is the real center and raison d'être of the whole operation."

A series of ponds, all kept at 29° Celsius, contains tilapia of every size up to six pounds, although those bred for commercial use generally weigh less than a pound. The tilapia, an excellent food fish, looks like a cross between a bluegill and a crappie, and thrives in captivity. It's known among East African epicures as Bamburi trout. The local water isn't right for true trout; they will die if the oxygen level in the water falls below 35 percent. "Tilapia can live with only 15 to 20 percent oxygen," says Armitage.

During our tour of the tilapia tanks, we passed Armitage's Honda MT-5 motorcycle. A peacock was preening on the seat, admiring himself in the rearview mirror. Just beneath his gorgeous tail stood a mound of green droppings. "Makes for a bit of a mess when you dash out after work and leap onto the bike for the ride home," Armitage said. "Got to think ahead in this business."

North of Mombasa's sprawl the country turns agricultural again: miles of coconut groves and sugarcane interspersed with stands of cashew, mango and papaya trees and vast hillsides spiky with pineapples. A food-lover could lead an ecstatic life here existing only on fruit, nuts and the abundant seafood—tiny and slightly metallic-tasting oysters, langouste and especially the huge prawns done in a spicy style called piri piri. The fragrant mangoes, ripened on the tree and a rich orange in color, are alone worth the price of the visit.

Now we come to the Snake Part. Anyone suffering from herpetophobia had best skip ahead. Ever since my son insisted on keeping a rosy-tailed boa constrictor as a pet for two years—or until it graduated from a diet of mice to hamsters—I've been fascinated with snakes. Bill Winter's friend, Peter Bramwell, is a snake catcher and we had arranged a visit to his serpentarium at Mnarani, on the south side of the Kilifi ferry crossing an hour north of Mombasa. Tucked in among the key-oxes that clutter the ferry slip, selling everything from wood carvings to cashews, the serpentarium is a bit scruffy in appearance, but the snakes are in excellent shape: big-eyed boomslange and slate-gray spitting cobras; a racy, whip-tailed green mamba the color of a lime Popsicle; squatty, swollen puff adders and a tangle of pythons thicker than fire hoses.

Bramwell, 53, is a wiry man with a graying spade beard and thick spectacles—the result of too many encounters with the spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis). "His first line of defense is to shoot for the eyes," Bramwell says. "It's a neurotoxic venom, of course, and strongly acidic. I've tested these snakes and they can spit 19 to 21 times before they run dry. At 18 feet, they'll spray you from head to foot, but at 12 feet they'll hit you dead in both eyes every time. Because they're nocturnal hunters, you have no warning of their presence. Within four seconds after a hit, you're reeling out of the way with pain. I always carry eyedrops—adrenaline, one in 2,000 parts—and with that you can stop the pain in 10 minutes. Untreated, it will last five days. Unsweetened milk is the next best treatment—the sugar in sweet milk will stick the venom to your eyeballs. Water is less effective, but often the only recourse, and in a real pinch, ugly as it sounds, you could have a companion urinate in your eyes—anything to wash out the venom. It's also a good idea, when going after spitting cobras, not to shave. That's why I have the beard. A drop of that toxin in a shaving nick and you've had it." In deference to his wife, Jan, Bramwell hasn't caught any poisonous snakes since 1977. That was the year he was bitten by a black mamba, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. "Until then no one had survived the bite of a black mamba," he says. "I'd been bitten by boomslange, puff adders and a green mamba and pulled through, but when the black hit me, I thought I'd had it. It happened on a Sunday, and I should have known better. All my bites have come on a Sunday."

Bramwell was at home that day, near Kilifi, when one of his staff reported a snake lurking near the rabbit hutches. "It was up on the rafters and I could see it was a black," he recalls. "I got the tongs—they're rather like the device grocery clerks use to remove packages from high shelves, but padded so as not to injure the snake—and got the leather-necked catching bag ready. Then I grabbed him. Too far back. About 18 inches of his neck and head were forward of the tongs. As I went to close the bag, my hand was too near the lip. The snake was still on the tongs but he got his head over the edge and hit me on the hand. Twice. I whipped him out of the bag and killed him. I recall shouting, 'I've killed you, you bastard, but you're not killing me.' "

That was about 9:30 a.m. There was no pain—"Neurotoxic venom doesn't hurt," Bramwell says, "but the bite of a puff adder, which is hemotoxic, makes you feel like you've got a toothache from the top of your head to the soles of your feet." Within 20 minutes Bramwell was feeling "pins and needles" in his extremities. Neurotoxic venom attacks the autonomic nervous system, ultimately shutting off the victim's ability to breathe and sometimes even stopping the heart. Realizing that their Toyota Land Cruiser was too slow for the emergency run to the nearest hospital, Jan borrowed a neighbor's car and drove Peter to Mombasa at 85 mph. Fortunately, a snake-bite expert from Europe was at the hospital when Bramwell arrived. "He pulled me through," says Peter. "Three days later, I learned that a chap in South Africa had also survived a mamba bite. We were the first to do so." But the aftereffects have left him weak, lethargic and without much zest for the hard physical work he used to enjoy.

"The effect of these poisons is cumulative," he says. "My uncle, Alan Tarlton, was a snake catcher here for years. During World War II, when the demand for antivenin was very high, he never had fewer than 400 puff adders in his cages. He was bitten 45 times by old Bids—that's the puffer's generic name. He claimed that after the 43rd bite he was immune, but the 45th bite finished him."

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